Members of a family wear face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 as they ride their motorcycle along a street in Phnom Penh on April 28. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
On weekends Cambodia’s beaches are full of locals seeking a respite from the heat. In the capital bars are attempting to reopen quietly — doors ajar and lights off — and convincing people that social distancing is a must is proving difficult.
This is despite health officials warning that Cambodia could be hit by a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and that people must remain vigilant, stay indoors, wear face masks and step up their hygiene routines.
Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine said the Covid-19 risk level for individual transmission is still at an alarming rate as other countries struggle to combat the virus.
“Cambodia’s coronavirus scenario is classified as being at an early stage of the pandemic because of ongoing transmissions worldwide. A second wave can occur at any instance,” she said.
Cambodia has reported just 122 Covid-19 cases and no deaths, with 120 patients recovered. Most cases involved people who had arrived from overseas, including 40 French tourists and Khmers returning from jobs elsewhere in the region.
Exactly why Cambodia has escaped the full wrath of the coronavirus is not known and people here, like elsewhere, are suspicious of the official figures. But there has been no evidence to suggest otherwise in a social media-savvy population.
Or Vandine based her assessment on people becoming more relaxed, and she was backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which also warned that Cambodia remained at high risk of a second wave.
“I would like to remind the public in Cambodia that we are facing a very complex global situation of the Covid-19 pandemic,” WHO Cambodia representative Dr. Li Ailan told a press conference, adding that Cambodia had done a good job in handling its initial response to 122 cases and the pandemic.
“We should be proud of this,” Li said. “But now is a new window of opportunity for all us to prepare for a possible next wave in Cambodia as well.”
The low rate of infections in Cambodia has perhaps fed a more relaxed attitude, further frustrating efforts by health authorities keen to contain the often deadly and highly contagious viral outbreak.
Or Vandine said Cambodians were moving more freely. The popular riverfront is often filled with people, some wearing masks, in the evenings, while markets, restaurants and shopping malls are still open with little social distancing.
She said Cambodians must continue with good hygiene practices, which should also become the new normal going forward.
“I don’t want to label the Covid-19 risk as high or medium, but I can say that the situation in Cambodia is still at an alarming stage, which means we have to be vigilant and very careful because the risk for individuals is not low,” Or Vandine said.